By Rick Barton
JUNE 15, 1998:
David Breashears' Everest is a dazzling, astonishing, majestic piece of work, perfectly suited for its gigantic IMAX format. It is gorgeous, breathtaking, terrifying and ultimately frustrating. The film shows us the daunting challenges of climbing the world's highest mountain but fails adequately to explore why someone would want to take the frightful risk to do so. The picture had such a galvanizing effect on me that I marched straight out of the theater to the Bookstar on North Peters Street to buy Jon Krakauer's best seller Into Thin Air, which relates events in which the IMAX filmmakers were central players. In the pages of Krakauer's book, I learned that this movie was made by a brave, generous man of vast talents and surpassing humility who is, at some level, obviously out of his mind.
Everest was made during that infamous spring of 1996 when 12 climbers lost their lives, nine on the very trail that Breashears and his IMAX team took to the top. In the strictest mountaineering terms, Mount Everest, which straddles the border between Nepal and Tibet, is not all that difficult a peak to climb. There are few sheer cliffs that have to be scaled. Skilled work with piton and rope is not required. Still, the mountain is incredibly deadly. Since regular attempts to climb it began in the 1920s, one person has died for every four who have achieved the summit. The reasons for this danger have mostly to do with high altitude. At 29,028 feet, Everest pokes into the jet stream at the cruising altitude of commercial airliners. As the film reveals, the difference in barometric pressure and oxygen content between sea level and mountain top is so great that if a human being were taken directly from ocean-side and deposited at the peak, he or she would immediately fall unconscious and die within minutes.
To put the matter in plainest terms, humans can't live long at 25,000 feet. In what climbers term "the death zone," there is simply not enough oxygen to sustain the needs of the brain. This can cause both cerebral and pulmonary edema, by which fluid leaks into the brain or lungs, either of which can be quickly fatal. Even those who manage to avoid these life-threatening conditions are likely to be affected by acute mountain sickness that causes headaches, nausea, sleep disturbance and a dry persistent cough powerful enough to crack ribs. And if all that isn't bad enough, Everest is beset by an extreme weather turbulence that produces hurricane-force winds, temperatures as low as 100 degrees below zero and torrential snow falls that obliterate trail markers and reduce visibility to less than the length of your arm.
Climbers address these dangers by making the ascent on Everest very slowly, spending a month and even longer at a 17,000-foot base camp and making a series of climbs to and descents from altitudes up to 22,000 feet in order to allow their bodies to acclimatize. They dress warmly, of course, increase their consumption of water to fight off the dehydration that accelerates as they climb higher and use bottled oxygen on the day they actually go to the summit. In addition, most climbers are assisted by the hardy local mountain people, the Sherpas, who do much of the load bearing on climbs and go out on point to mark the trails with rope so those who follow can hook onto safety lines. And still, many who dare climb Everest die.
The IMAX climbers were scheduled to go for the top two days before the doomed expeditions of Rob Hall's Adventure Consultants and Scott Fischer's Mountain Madness teams. But bad weather prohibited the original IMAX summit assault, and the film's central figures huddle at base camp as disaster strikes on the slopes above them. They are among those who talk with Hall by cell phone as he lies freezing to death just below the summit, and Viesturs and Breashears are among those who rush to the rescue of Hall's client, Beck Weathers, who survives but loses both hands and his nose to frostbite. But the film dwells little on these tragedies and even less on the heroism exhibited by members of the IMAX team.
Still, we find ourselves staggered by the seeming foolhardiness of the IMAX climbers when they decide to make a summit assault of their own a few days later. The photographs Breashears shoots along the way, the vistas he captures from the top of the world, are forbiddingly beautiful. And the hardships of the Everest climb that his camera documents are enduringly frightening. On the seemingly endless snowy expanse of the Lhotse Face, one misstep can send a climber skidding and tumbling 4,000 feet to his death. Throughout the lurching glacial Khumbu Icefall, yawning crevasses hundreds of feet deep must be crossed on rickety aluminum ladders, sometimes held together only by twined climbing rope. And above a 40-foot-high sheer wall of rock known as the Hillary Step, the summit can be reached only along the spine of a narrow ledge with 7,000 feet of empty sky to either side.
Who are the people who would want to take such risks purely for the bragging rights to say they survived them? The Sherpas are hired hands, of course, but it is still shameful that Breashears fails to identify and acknowledge the brave and essential efforts of the five Sherpas who accompany the IMAX crew to the top. The motivations of the film's stars are largely elusive, though Segarra's desire to become the first Spanish woman to summit is at least somewhat understandable, as is Norgay's desire to live up to the reputation of his famous father. Viesturs we come to know the least well of the three. He is newly married, and his wife, Paula, accompanies the IMAX team to Nepal to serve as Base Camp manager. Given his new familial commitments, and particularly given that Viesturs has climbed Everest previously, it's unclear why he wants to risk his life to do so again. It's particularly unclear why he wants to make the ultimate macho statement and climb the mountain without supplemental oxygen. To diminish the likelihood of life-threatening hypoxia, this requires him to speed up and down the mountain so fast that Breashears isn't even able to capture many of his exploits. What the film neglects to tell us, but Krakauer reveals, is that Paula Viesturs was so upset with Ed's decision to climb in the aftermath of so many deaths that she walked down the mountain to the village of Tengboche and stayed to collect herself for five days.
It is probably appropriate that Everest leaves as much mystery as it does. That's part of the film's thrill, just as the thrill of the climb itself surrenders to no logic. Looking back, though, energized as I was by this unique movie, I can't imagine encountering it without reading Krakauer's book immediately afterwards. The two go together like a shot and a beer.
FILM: Hope Floats
Sandra Bullock really needs some better material. She burst into America's consciousness in the original Speed and enjoyed her 15 minutes of success with the sweet While You Were Sleeping. But since then, it's been dogsville: Two If By Sea, In Love and War and the especially egregious Speed 2. Now comes Hope Floats, and she's still on a losing streak. Bullock can act, but she has to have a script with something approaching a character in a story worth watching. No such luck here.
Hope Floats tells the story of Birdee Pruitt, a former prom queen who, when she finds her husband's a cheater, returns to her small Texas hometown with her 9-year-old daughter Bernice (Mae Whitman). Back home, Birdee has to put up with her ditsy mom (Gena Rowlands), whose underdeveloped eccentricities means that she's the world's greatest grandmom. Birdee has no job skills, but she gets work at a photo shop. Meanwhile, Bernice has to put up with the school bully. All is eased as Birdee is gradually enticed into a romantic relationship with old homey Justin Matisse (Harry Connick Jr.). And that's all, folks. We see every move this flick is going to make. There's more plot tension in a growing lawn.
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